Thoughts about non-violent intervention

“If we want to be courageous, we need to practice courage in small things.  That’s the nature of training.  If you want to row hard in a race, you row everyday” (Mark Noris Lance).

Sometimes we need to practice practicing so we are able to be courageous when a situation arises.  A few weeks ago, the Peace and Justice Center generously hosted a workshop in non-violent interventions. In this workshop participants practiced ways to intervene if they saw verbal or physical assault in public.  While incidents of verbal or physical assault in public are on the rise, they are still rare and most of us won’t encounter an incident.  However, practicing can give us the courage to take action against violence in various settings and levels.

There is a lot of research on why people don’t intervene and bit on how to help people intervene in verbal or physical violence (Berkowitz, 2009; Burn, 2008; Latane & Darley, 1970).  One reason people don’t take action is that they don’t know what to do, a.k.a. they have a “skills deficit” (Cramer et al. 1988; Shotland and Heinhold, 1985).  This blog post breaks down things to consider, potential options you could take, and ways to practice.

Things to do to consider before intervening:

  • Notice what your body is doing/feeling. You don’t try to change anything about it, just do a little check-in.  Doing this will increase your ability to do whatever you are going to do next.
  • Try to check in with the person being targeted to see if they need help. You can do this by writing a note (using the note app on your phone and showing it to them is an option), silently asking by making eye contact/mouthing words, or verbally asking.
  • Try to check in with other folks around you. Maybe one person can video tape what is happening, maybe someone can call for help, and someone else can intervene.
  • Think about physical safety. Is there a way out of where you are?  Is there a way out for the person being targeted? Does the attacker seem to be alone?  Are you alone?

If you want to take action, the “4 D’s*” can help you decide what to do.


This is the riskiest one to do, but can be perfect for some situations.

  • Directed at the person being targeted. Handy phrases: “This person seems to be bothering you.” “I want to help.”
  • Directed at the person attacking. Handy phrases: “That’s not ok.” “You seem upset, can I help you with something?” “We value safety in our community, and what you are saying isn’t safe.” “I have called the authorities, you should go now.” “



  • Directed at the person being targeted: Address the person being targeted without acknowledging the attack is occurring. Potentially putting your body in-between the people. Handy phrases: “Hey, it’s so nice to see you, it’s been so long!”  “Do you know what time it is?” “I’ve been looking for a bag just like that, where did you get it?”
  • Directed at the person attacking: Address the person verbally attacking without acknowledging the attack is occurring. Handy phrases could be: “Excuse me, I’m trying to get to the store, do you know how to get there from here?” “Wow, all the cars are getting towed.  Isn’t that weird?” “Your shoes are so cool, what kind are they?” You can also dramatically spill/drop something or get in-between the people without acknowledging what is happening.


  1. Seek out an authority. Are you on a bus, in the street, in a store, in-front of a store? The bus driver, transit worker, or store supervisor all could have enough authority to step in. Go tell them they need to do that.
  2. Ask someone next to you to do a specific task and you do another task, such as one person distracts the attacker and the other checks in with the target.

Other things that don’t fit into the “D model”:

  • Sitting or standing next to the person being attacked.
  • Giving eye contact so the person knows that you know what is happening is not ok, and that you too feel unsafe.

A lot of times it isn’t possible to do something right in the moment.  You can still do lots of good afterward.  (This is the 4th D, Delay action)

  • Directed at the person targeted: Ask them if they are ok. Offer them water or snacks.  Offer to sit with them for a while. Offer to call someone for them.  Offer to walk them somewhere. Offer resources for further support.  Ask them if they want to make a report.
  • Directed at other people around who also witnessed the incident. Ask them if they are ok.  State something about how you feel.  Something like “I feel shaken after seeing this verbal/physical violence, this isn’t what our community is about.”
  • Depending upon the incident you can go to official routes like the police or your school administrators. You can also report at places like the ACLU or Southern Poverty Law Center.  Additionally, organizations like Hollaback! offer on-line spaces to share your story and inspire others.  Telling our story reduces the trauma of being part of verbal and physical violence, as witness or target.

Ways to practice:

  • Think about where you go in your daily life. When would you have the most ability to take action?
  • Read stories in places like Hollaback! and imagine you were doing the intervention.
  • Talk to a friend about how you would want to act if an incident happened in front of you.
  • Think about which of the “4 D’s” and in what way, do you think you could do in different situations.

May we all have the courage to practice courage.

*The “4 D’s” model is used by multiple organizations and individuals.  I couldn’t find an original source or citation for the model.


Participant says what?!

I wrote this for Training for Change’s November newsletter.  It is directed towards folks who facilitate trainings.

Have you ever been facilitating a training when a participant says something and a little (or big) voice inside your head says something like “What did they just say?  What in the world do I do now?!!” That happens to me sometimes. Here’s a story about that.

The first story is about accidentally avoiding conflict.  I was asked to do a training for a group of facilitators who wanted to increase their confidence and skills in addressing challenging comments in the training room. We framed the training as “moving toward conflict to promote learning.”  After exploring personal, cultural, and societal experiences of conflict it was time for some practice.  I decided to use a parallel line role play to practice how to respond to challenging comments.  I asked the group what kind of comment they wanted to practice with.  The group had been very self-reflective so far and had gone deep with exploring their individual comfort level with conflict.  I took this to indicate it wouldn’t be risky to ask them what content they wanted for their practice time.  I was wrong.

Most of the group wanted to practice fundraising conversations.  This felt out of left field.  While the organization has fundraising components, I was there to assist them in using conflict for learning while facilitating.  I had a very loud voice shouting in my head “Oh, no, what am I going to do?!”  I could feel some my panicky physical sensations: stomach turning, vision closing down, palms a little sweaty.  My brain also closed down a little and I said “Ok, let’s have you all practice fundraising conversations” and I continued with the set-up and ran the activity.  We went on with the workshop, had different formats of practice, folks learned some skills and increased their confidence in using conflict for learning.

After every training I look at the evaluations, write up personal reflections, and talk to the point person for the workshop.  During this process, I realized the comedy of the moment.  The purpose of the workshop was to build skill in addressing conflict, participants of this workshop avoided conflict, and I avoided conflict right along with them! When it came time to practice directly engaging with conflict most of the participants skirted around the topic at hand.   In reflecting upon my own conflict avoidance, by going along with the off-topic example and not addressing it, I realized that my socialization and social identities were very activated in that moment.  As a middle-class mixed Latina I was taught a lot of things about how to deal with conflict both within my groups and when interacting with people from different groups. Some of these things allow me to use the power of conflict for learning and growth, some of these things limit learning and growth.  In this workshop I was working with mostly white and mostly wealthy participants.  While I work with this population fairly frequently, I still sometimes get caught up (as I did in this moment) by the larger societal messages of not challenging white wealth. That despite me being explicitly paid to challenge the status quo, our oppressive system was present in the room.

Part of reflecting on the workshop was a brainstorm of alternative options for how to respond. Here are four:

  1. Meta-communication: “Oh, I’m noticing that you all picked something we haven’t been talking about.”
  2. Asking questions: “Hmm, how does a fundraising conversation fit into the workshop goals of increasing skills in using conflict for learning?”
  3. Being directive: “So, in our conversations so far, people have said what is hard for them to deal with most is racist comments in a workshop. Let’s work with that kind of comment instead, since this workshop focuses on facilitation.”
  4. Being confrontational: “You all seem to be avoiding practicing directly engaging in conflict, by picking an off-topic example. In my experience that is one technique some folks use to control situations and maintain structural power, by doing something off topic that looks like it is on topic.”

The moment was a small one, a good laugh afterwards, and reminded me how easy it is to get surprised in the training room.  By spending time reflecting on that moment, I got to understand the complexity of what was happening for me.  This deeper understanding gives me more room to both have a panic moment and still have options that are more aligned with my goals.

My second story is about working with a co-facilitator.  I was working with a curriculum that I didn’t design, with a co-facilitator that I hadn’t worked with before, for a group of folks from different organizations that wanted to learn more about a particular social justice topic.  This curriculum includes ground rules as part of the agenda review.  I am generally not a big fan of ground rules for non-intact groups (see Daniel Hunter’s article on ground rules for more thoughts on the subject). However, I have found that with some groups not having ground rules is so disruptive to their expectations that participants struggle to be present for learning.

Next in the workshop, both facilitators shared about their social identities and how they got into working for social justice. I went first, nothing interesting happened.  Then my co-facilitator shared her story of being an African-American woman growing up in the 1960s and seeing adults around her push for civil rights; rights that she has seen rolled back in recent years.  She then gave instructions for the next activity and asked if there were any questions.  A muscular white man in his mid 30s (who later shared that he is working class and in the military) raised his hand and said “You violated the first rule on the ground rules by not using ‘I statements’ when you said civil rights have been rolled back lately.” The room went tense and very quiet. This was 15 minutes into a four-hour workshop.

As the facilitator who was not actively facilitating I began to cheer for my co-facilitator in my head.  Things like “You can do this Mary (a made-up name for my co-facilitator)!  You can navigate this!  You can support everyone’s learning in this moment!! Yes, you can!!”

Mary responds, the room gets even more tense.  Her response seemed to lock the participant deeper in distrust.  I started to hear things in my head like “Should I do something?  Does my co-facilitator need me?  How can I support her in a way that doesn’t diminish us as a team? I don’t want one of the few working class folks to be verbally attacked by other participants.  I don’t want to let a white guy verbally attack my African-American co-facilitator. What should I do?  How should I do it?  I can’t believe this is happening!”

Without trying to quiet the noise in my head, I started focusing on why I was at the front of the room in the first place. I started thinking about how the ground was supporting my feet and about my goal of liberation for everyone.

Another participant, a white woman wearing one of the fanciest outfits in the room, said “When I work with my students I talk to them about not being too sensitive to things people say.”  The first participant half mumbled under his breath while looking at the floor and shaking a little bit said “Are you saying I’m being too sensitive?”

At this point I stood up, moved in front of my co-facilitator, and started talking.  I said “Let’s mark this moment for our learning. We have been given a gift by… (I lean towards the first participant), what’s your name? (Let’s say he said John). We have been given a gift by John as an example of one way to say ‘What you did impacted me in this way.’ And… (I lean towards the second participant) and what’s your name? (Let’s say she said Karen). These name tags are just so small to read (I give a small chuckle). Karen has given us some things she uses with her students.  Mary showed one way to respond to the gift of someone saying ‘what you did impacted me in this way’ and there are a lot of different options for responding.  So, as we start our time together there may be other times when we get to say ‘what you did impacted me’ and we may be able to practice how to say that and how to respond.  So please turn to your partner and talk about the activity Mary just explained, or talk about what just happened (I said this with a light energy and a bit of a chuckle).  We’ll come back as a group and some folks will have an opportunity to share and we’ll see what we have to talk about.”

When we came back as a large group I asked folks what they talked about and what they wanted to share.  No one shared anything about that moment.  People were very engaged in the workshop and seemed to learn a lot, including John and Karen. Briefly during the workshop, and after the workshop I checked-in with my co-facilitator.  She felt supported by my intervention, which I was really hoping she would.

These two stories highlight for me the importance of recognizing the moment, seeing multiple layers that are happening, and grounding myself in my goals (both specific workshop goals and larger goals).  When I got caught up in the moment in the first story, I wasn’t able to see what was happening and participants lost some learning opportunity. Taking the time to reflect gave me possibilities for the future.  The second story I was really able to have space for both the panic voice and my clarity of what I wanted to do. This ability to hold the complexity allowed me to access my flexibility and support learning.

You welcomed me

I recently co-facilitated a day-long workshop on class and classism to a group of people who ranged in occupations and motivation to attend, yet had all found out about the workshop through a faith community.  I opened this workshop, as I open many workshops, with a tailored diversity welcome.  I acknowledged many potential things about this group of people, including their spirits, their faith, and their communities.

A few hours later we (my co-facilitator and I) had placed signs throughout the room with different class markers.  After exploring these markers, we asked people to pick the class background they were in at age 12.  After some milling about I interrupted people to clarify who was in which group and to give them the next set of instructions.

At this time there were two individuals not next to a class sign but instead in the middle of the room.  I asked them which group they were going to be in.  One of the people said, “I don’t belong in any group.”  To this I replied that for the activity I needed her to be in one group.  She looked me straight in the eye and with a deadpan expression said “You welcomed me.”  I looked at her and laughed in enjoyment and responded “I did welcome you, I did.  Thank you for reminding me. We will figure out how to incorporate who you are after we make sure the other groups are settled.”

After I had given instructions to all the participants and the small groups began discussing the next topic I turned to the two people in the middle of the room.  I let them know this activity was about sharing commonalities with each other.  So, if the two of them could find class background commonalities than they would be fulfilling the purpose of the activity.

The two happily went about chatting, had a meaningful report out to the whole group, and helped all the participants move their learning forward.  It was a beautiful reminder that when I welcome the entirety of people into a space the entirety of them can walk into the room.  When we balance differentiation and integration it has powerful moments for social change, individually and collectively.

grounding opening

I recently facilitated a board meeting for a non-profit who needed an outside facilitator (as we can all use an outside facilitator now and again).  I had set out my personal goals for my facilitation, one of which was to to embody my trust of the group and their ability to work through and with their conflict.  It was time to move onto choosing an opening grounding activity.  I pulled out idea after idea for how to ground the group, getting more and more complicated.  I looked at my list of possibilities, looked at my list of goals and realized that I could trust the group to ground itself.  Instead of asking the group to do an elaborate grounding activity, I opened with a request for people to introduce themselves and share one thing they do to ground themselves.  I could trust that people know how to ground themselves.  By inviting them to share this self-knowledge I began the conversation in a way that built more trust in themselves, in the group, and with me.

The importance of clear facilitation instructions

Yesterday, a colleague sent a short youtube clip that humorously depicts the importance of clear facilitation instructions. I was thrilled to laugh at the easy (and common) mistake the video showed.

Many times, new facilitators worry about their abilities to give instruction and sometimes fall into the trap of blaming participants for “not following” directions. This trap limits the growth of facilitators and creates distance between facilitators and participants.  Reflection on a workshop can really assist a facilitator to see how participants are responding to their instruction giving and refine how (and why) they are giving instructions.  And of course, having a good sense of humor about the reflection is generally useful!

Starting a workshop

The start of a session can sometimes be the most terrifying moment for a new trainer.  They have their goals, their outline, their potential questions for each activity, but how to actually begin?  Well, as most things in training, my answer is “it depends” and there are awesome guidelines to think about.

Firstly, you need to know what you are working with.  How you start depends upon who you are, what your topic is, who your participants are, what space you have, how much time you have for your workshop, and what tools are at your disposal.  When answering these fun questions you get to keep your goals in mind.  Now that you are grounded in what you are doing, why and with whom, it is time to think of some guidelines.

Since most people have experienced teacher-centered learning all of their lives, it is quite easy for participants to fall into the role of a passive recipient of knowledge, rather than an active learner.  This is where the beginning of your workshop can really set the tone and signal to everyone that participant learning matters, not the facilitator’s knowledge/expertise/ego.  One way to do this is to get participant voices into the room as early as possible.

While there are many ways to do it, here is one example of how to start your workshop. “Thank you for coming to this workshop.  I am curious about everyone in the room, I bet other people are too. We’ll start the workshop by going around and each say our names and one thing that brought us here today. Do you feel ready to start us off (turning to your neighbor and gesturing to them)?”  After everyone is finished, “thank you all so much, we have such a great resources in the room that I look forward to using throughout our time together.  Now I’ll tell you about the goals and outline for our time together.”

This opening may be uncomfortable for both the facilitator and the participants, who are accustomed to facilitators establishing their credibility and participants establishing their passivity as the opening ritual of workshops.  However, this opening creates meaningful space for participants to engage their own power and learn significant amounts, thus meeting your goals.

Playback theater

I was fortunate enough to play with Play Back Theater  at a Training of Trainers workshop by Class Action.  While I have experienced and used Theater of the Oppressed tools it was my first time with Play Back Theater.  For this work, there was an audience, actors, and a conductor.  I was one of the four actors who made fluid sculptures.  The conductor asked participants a question that would elicit an emotion, for example, “how are you feeling right now?”  And as actors, we would demonstrate that feeling.  It was an amazing reminder of the power of reflection and play.

Putting two things into one

A few days ago, I was consulting with someone who had 30 to 45 minutes to cover 2 huge topics: triggers and tracking.  In the social justice training world, these are two sizable and important concepts.  How does one fit two huge things together?  See what they have in common and capitalize on that!

Together we figured out what experiential activity would both raise awareness of ones surroundings using a social justice lens (tracking) while noticing one’s emotional reactions (triggers).  Then, we developed a number of helpful questions to be prepared to process people through their learning.  I am excited to hear a report back on how it went.

norm setting as ritual

Last week I was reading about ritual and I began to think about the role of norm settings as ritual and their place in the training.  That thought brought me to re-reading Daniel Hunter’s article “Break the Rules: How Ground Rules Can Hurt Us” and thinking even more about norm setting as ritual.

A standard feature of many workshops is the obligatory “norm setting” or “ground rule” setting.  Usually this is done in the first few moments of a workshop right after the facilitator introduces the workshop.  The facilitator will say something like “we want to set norms for working together, what are some things we can follow that will assist in that learning?”  Then, participants who have set norms before will share things like “step up/step back,” “actively listening,” and “suspend judgment.”  The bold, vocal, and comfortable participants will ask clarifying questions while those who are confused or not ready to participate will not share their voice.  As Daniel’s article talks about, the ground rules are infrequently referenced again and thus could become “meaningless ritual.” All of this generally leads to those that have the most power in the room (facilitators and participants alike) to maintain that power while projecting a false sense of equality.

All of these ideas got me thinking about how to have a meaningful ritual of ground rules.  Rituals can be hollow reinforcements of undesired power dynamics OR they can create spaces of empowerment.  However, many short format workshops (1 day to 1 hour) do not feel they have time to spend 1 hour to create meaningful ground rules for this unique group (Daniel’s article clearly lays out how one can develop meaningful ground rules).

This got me thinking: Is it possible to use ground rules as an empowering ritual when there isn’t the time to fully engage in developing actual ground rules for a particular group? This question got me thinking about the purpose of ground rules, which is to open up space for community and connection.  When we are grounded in the purpose of our activities, it is easier to see if it is or is not fulfilling our intention.

The problems participants have

One of the things I value about participant centered learning is the way it addresses the problems participant’s have, not the problems I know they will have later.  I was recently reflecting upon how new facilitators have such different problems than seasoned facilitators.  When I design elicitive workshops I can know what each group of new facilitators needs and guide them through the exploration.  Telling new facilitators what will be problems down the road is just so stressful for everyone.